College trustees voted 5-0 to hire Oakland-based InPartnership Consulting, a self-described “organizational development and strategic change firm,” to mediate a controversy that has divided scores of campus employees along racial lines. Dr. Michael Bell will lead a team of mediators studying the foundations and flashpoints of recent racial tension on campus that many Southwestern College leaders have called “a crisis.” InPartnership may be paid up to $45,000, according to the consultant contract.
InPartnership consultants have interviewed select campus employees in an effort to root out the causes of long-simmering racial tension at SWC and to help the college move forward. Governing Board President Nora Vargas said trustees were deeply concerned by recent events and will work hard to find a comprehensive solution.
“I do want to emphasize that this is an item that is extremely important for us as a governing board,” Vargas said. “We are committed to ensuring the fostering of systemic intervention and making sure that this environment is of respect, equity, diversity and inclusion to really support our students. We are taking these matters very seriously.”
Long-time college employees have said Southwestern has bubbled with underlying racial tension for more than 25 years, going back to hiring controversies in the early 1990s. An NAACP investigation in 2003, complaints of racism by minority custodians and charges of preferential treatment by administrators preceded the latest incident involving Dr. Guadalupe Rodriguez Corona, hired in January as SWC’s Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Controversy erupted in February after Corona was said to have unilaterally cancelled the first meeting of a brand new EDI committee she was to tri-chair with Student Development Director Janelle Williams and Facilities Coordinator Ursula Morris-Williams.
Corona said her main reason for the cancellation was a time crunch related to a grant deadline. She also expressed concern that the EDI Committee may not have been diverse enough to truly represent the district’s racial, ethnic and sexual constituencies. Williams said she felt Corona was implying that the committee had too many African-Americans. Corona strongly denied that she said or implied that, but the campus soon erupted when President Dr. Melinda Nish repeated the notion that there were too many African-Americans on the EDI Committee during a meeting of college leaders.
Nish has since apologized for her statement and insisted she was thinking statistically about the diversity of the committee.
Several campus faculty and classified leaders called for the termination or resignation of Nish and Corona. Academic Senate representatives discussed the possibility of a vote of no confidence against Corona, but no decision has been made, pending a report from In Partnership.
Corona told the governing board that she recognizes she got off to a bumpy start in her new position, but said she remains optimistic that she can help the college “move forward.”
“I came with a lot of enthusiasm to this great opportunity and new journey at Southwestern College,” Corona said. “It’s a powerful opportunity for this institution and everybody involved to be able to move together to address some real challenges that we have faced for many, many years, but realistically, I was in the middle of it for the last 30 days. I’m hopeful that everybody in this room believes that the way I’ve been treated is not the way that anyone should be treated on their first 30 days on the job.”
Academic Senate President Patricia Flores-Charter said Corona has fences to mend.
“We were told that (Corona) is new to the college and that she needs to be given a chance to learn our college culture and establish relationships,” said Flores-Charter. “She did describe us as a lynch mob and that we’ve created for her a hostile work environment. That we haven’t treated her fairly or respectfully.”
Flores-Charter said Corona did not understand the full extent of her job, especially the actionable improvement plan that was on a timeline.
“I explained that low morale was identified multiple times in employee satisfaction surveys for accreditation,” she said. “ It was clear that she did not understand that this was part of her job.”
Many members of the senate said they were uncomfortable with the initial decision to draft a vote of no confidence. Professor of Communication Candice Taffolla-Schreiber said her constituency group was split and would not back a vote of no confidence. Many other departments agreed.
“I am a member of the communication department. I took a vote from every member of my department and it’s a deeply divided vote,” Taffolla-Schreiber said. “This is complex and I agree that people have been hurt and I trust the people who have told me about that hurt and I don’t think that’s a small thing, but I haven’t been asked for a vote yet. My department hasn’t been asked for a vote yet and I want to be careful about lumping us all together as though we all think the same way.”
Professors Carmen Nieves and Corina Soto said the issue at hand was escalated by the Academic Senate and questioned whether it had standing in the matter.
“A crisis? It’s not a crisis, it’s an issue,” Nieves said. “Someone was offended and that needs to be addressed. It is an issue and that’s all it is. Crisis is what we’ve created. What the Senate, which has not gathered our opinion before they voiced, has created.”
Nish said she acknowledges her statement at the leadership meeting.
“I accept full responsibility for those meetings,” she said. “I was asked by Dr. Suarez to bring an issue to the committee. She was concerned about rumors and comments that she was hearing about this Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the membership. I took these to be very grave concerns, and quite frankly divisive, and as you’ve heard we realize that there are issues of discrimination and injustice and bias. But I believe that all of us, particularly in an educational institution, want to try to work through those.”
Gretel Rodriguez, a teacher at Otay Ranch High School who said she has known Corona for years, spoke on her behalf and insistent that Corona’s silence during the early days of the controversy was misunderstood.
“Don’t confuse her calmness or her quietness as being passive and not listening,” Rodriguez said. “She works to listen and that’s very rare.”
Rodriguez said Corona did not instigate the racial issue at SWC, but walked into existing controversies and racial tension.
“I feel like it’s a character assassination,” she said. “It was a witch-hunt. I don’t know what politics are going on here, but there is stuff going on here that even the community talks about and I’m hoping that as a board that you find a way to heal those old wounds that are currently taking place that she has walked into those old wounds.”
“The elected leaders of the Academic Senate, the SCEA faculty union and the classified union had already misused their positions and titles to take a position on Dr. Corona,” Soto said. “They outed her in the press and they called her a racist. They did this without the permission or direction of their membership.”
Soto called the collect efforts aligned against Corona “a lynch mob.” She said the Academic Senate has no standing on this issue and should remove itself from the discussion.
Soto also said that after she went to the EDI committee, she went to the faculty union meeting and was verbally reprimanded by SCEA President Frank Post for behavior she had allegedly engaged in at the EDI committee.
“I’m not mad at our union president (Post), I think he was just caught up in a moment,” Soto said. “But right in that moment when he called me out, my reptilian brain said fight or flight and I was going dude, you must be crazy because this is not treat a Chicana like a piñata week. Okay? No, you cannot do that here.”